FA Cup: last trophy chance for Arsenal as they face Swansea
Gunners cannot afford to lose, will Joe Cole star for West Ham against Man Utd?
THE MOST romantic weekend of the football season has arrived as the lower division minnows get the chance to take a pop at the big guns in the third round of the FA Cup. But, unsurprisingly, most of the attention will be focused on the four all-Premier League ties that feature clubs including Manchester United, Arsenal and holders Chelsea.
On Sunday Arsenal travel to Swansea knowing that defeat would condemn them to an eighth straight season without silverware (barring a mircale in the Champions League). That could prompt Arsene Wenger to field a full-strength side, although he will want his starting XI to perform a lot better than the one that lost against Bradford in the Capital One Cup.
As for Swansea, they face Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup on Wednesday and that could influence Michael Laudrup's approach.
In short, and this may rankle with Arsenal fans, the game is more important to the Gunners than it is to Swansea. But given the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the London club's performances and the fact that they were comprehensively outplayed by Swansea in the league last month it would be a brave man who bets on an away win.
Pick of Saturday's ties is probably Man United's trip to West Ham. Alex Ferguson will not have fond memories of cup ties at Upton Park: in 2001 his side were famously knocked out when keeper Fabien Barthez was made to look a fool as he stopped playing and appealed for offside only for Hammers' striker Paolo Di Canio to score the only goal of the game.
This time round West Ham's Joe Cole is likely to be centre stage. He rejoined his boyhood club from Liverpool this week and should make his debut in the cup-tie.
However, Sam Allardyce is nothing if not a pragmatist and may well take the view that Premier League survival is the main priority for the Hammers this season and rest some of his big name players. Ferguson is also likely to leave some of his stars on the bench and on the basis that United's second string are likely to be stronger than West Ham's, an away win seems likely.
Chelsea face a tough test at Southampton on Saturday and it will be interesting to see who Rafa Benitez picks for Chelsea after his attempts at squad rotation went badly wrong against QPR in midweek. However, the Blues have a League Cup semi-final on Wednesday so Benitez may choose to keep his powder dry.
With his side embroiled in a relegation dog-fight Southampton manager Nigel Adkins has two options. He can either go for broke in an attempt to maintain what momentum his team has, or play it safe leave his big names on the bench and concentrate on the league. Sadly, the latter is more likely.
The final all-Premier League match up pits high flying West Brom against bottom club QPR in West London. Rangers boss Harry Redknapp faces the same quandary as Adkins and may decide not to risk injury to any of his key players with Premier League survival the club's main aim. West Brom on the other side are looking good in the league and might just think they have a chance of winning the FA Cup this season.
Unusually this year the third round has not thrown up any local derbies, with the possible exception of Peterborough versus Norwich, but there are a few ties that could produce shocks.
Newcastle face a tough trip to Brighton of the Championship on Saturday lunchtime and Aston Villa may not be looking forward to the visit of Ipswich. Crystal Palace will also fancy their chances against Stoke.
The most romantic match-up sees Liverpool, the seven times winners of the cup, travel to Mansfield, who are ninth in the Conference, the fifth tier of English football. Everton also have an old-school tie against Cheltenham, who are fourth in League Two.
Meanwhile Hastings Town of the Ryman League travel to Middlesbrough of the Championship, who are 131 places above them in the English football table.